DPs Denis Lenoir and Yorick Le Saux on Wasp Network, Arri Alexa vs Sony VENICE and Dividing Cinematographer Duties
The sunny subterfuge of Wasp Network, about a knotty web of anti-Castro groups and Cold War residuals, is a relief from the blue skin, suits and shadows of heavy political thrillers. It’s an Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Personal Shopper, Non-Fiction) film after all, shot in Cuba, Miami and the blue sky and ocean in between. As on Carlos, Assayas’ go-to DPs Denis Lenoir (Cold Water, Disorder.) and Yorick Le Saux (Personal Shopper, Non-Fiction) shot their own half of Wasp Network. With Carlos, Le Saux started the film and chose the film stock, lenses, etc. On Wasp Network, Lenoir shot the first half and chose the Sony VENICE to capture the film’s brighter end of the curve (hot exteriors, sand, sky, and reflective ocean), a choice Le Saux might not have made (he’d have chosen an Arri Alexa to shoot Assayas’ first digital film).
You might assume Lenoir and Le Saux were anxious to swap notes or methodically ensure Wasp Network’s two halves didn’t end up looking like two different movies, but the opposite is true. As in Carlos, they barely discussed it. Years later, they can hardly remember who shot what. Indeed, if one didn’t know Wasp Network was shot by two different DPs, you’d never notice. I saw the film twice knowing, and couldn’t pin a pattern to who shot what. Talking to both DPs separately—Lenoir first, Le Saux second—they both ascribed the consistency to the movie being much bigger than themselves. Despite them having entirely different tendencies in lighting and philosophy, the director, the actors, the script, locations, etc informed the images so much that neither DP is distinguishable from the other in the film.
Filmmaker: Olivier told me it was your choice to shoot Sony VENICE.
Denis Lenoir: Yorick, the other DP, is an Alexa guy. I used to be an Alexa guy, but I’m thinking the Alexa is a little outdated now. I love the capture, I’ve used it on so many films, it’s what made me switch happily from film to digital, so there will always be a particular place in my heart for the Alexa. But I used the Sony FS7 and learned to love the capture and color science. In tests I found that the Sony VENICE had more dynamic range than the Alexa. I knew that shooting outdoors in tropical countries we would need that range. I decided also, and I know it sounds counter intuitive, that it would be best to overexpose one stop. The reason for that was, I’ve learned through the years that, in the same way you overexpose film, it helped clean up the image in digital. It’s good unless you want that grain or noise. I wanted a very clean image, so I overexposed everything a stop with a few exceptions. In the scene where Ana [De Armas] is driven home by Juan Pablo Roque [Wagner Moura] it got too noisy at night and I didn’t like it. We shot 4K. We couldn’t afford 6K so we were not using the entire part of the capture.
Filmmaker: It looks like you didn’t use filtration to treat those hot highlights.
Lenoir: First, I would say, we were two DPs, and I was not the one filming Penélope Cruz, so I cannot answer for filming her. That is a question for Yorick. Then it’s a two part answer. One is: yes it does look natural, it is digital, it is the images that Olivier wanted, which is not to say [as a DP] that you do not make a choice, do not have a direction, and personal taste. On the other hand, it is an action movie (kind of), there are regular people played by fancy actors, they are all rather young and soft. The two women I filmed, Ana and Penélope, are young and beautiful and didn’t need any filtration. There was nothing to hide.
Filmmaker: Olivier said he pushed to shoot in bright exteriors as much as possible. The film is also refreshingly bright in general. You’re working at the higher end of the curve, everything is clear, faces & the background.
Lenoir: Yorick might have a different thinking on this, but it is true that I have found a love for finding bright images where you clearly see the faces of the actors. It may have something to do with my failing eyes [laughs]. I don’t know, I don’t actually think it’s that. But it is true that—when I was a young DP—I thought it was so cool to put my fancy actor in total darkness for 30 minutes. In some ways, I think I was inspired by the work of other cinematographers.
It’s cool, I love it when I see it. But at the same time, over the years, I’ve become more and more convinced that a good part of what the actor is doing, when acting, is going through a series of emotions and expressions that is itself like a landscape that changes over time. If you don’t give that to the audience you are betraying the actor, on the one hand, and also stealing some from the audience. In the scene where Ana’s learning live on TV that Wagner’s character migrated back to Cuba and left her behind, we stay on her the whole time. We do not cut to the TV, and she does not have a single line of dialogue. What she was doing during the whole scene, which is quite long, was incredible. Obviously this example is extreme because it’s only on her and she has no dialogue, but more and more I am wary of putting actors in darkness.
I had to cheat on a film called Righteous Kill with De Niro and Al Pacino. It’s neither of their best films, but anyway, the producer and director wanted to keep their faces bright. So, I wondered how I could retain a thriller effect without putting their face in darkness. What I did was put something very bright in an otherwise dark background so that the audience’s eyes were, in a way, stopped down, shutting down their iris. So, it achieved that feeling even though their faces were totally bright.
Filmmaker: There’s another scene with Ana De Armas where we track her through a dance floor and don’t look away from her face, or show what she’s looking at, until the end of the move that reveals her husband.
Lenoir: It was, honestly, a lot of fun to shoot this film in general, but particularly to work with Ana and the actors I had not met before, and for Olivier too. I had not known of Ana before this. I would almost beg for another take because it was so much fun to film her. That scene is such a blast, and yet it is only on her, on her the entire time.
Filmmaker: You generally prioritize the actors more these days?
Lenoir: I’m totally convinced that the film is not about the DP and their work. It’s about something that’s totally bigger than them. Yes, they have a part, and a creative part, but they should never never never try to be interesting or anything like that. I’ve always been in the service of the director, but perhaps because of my years in the States, I’ve also been feeling more in service of the actors, which doesn’t mean I think there should be so much light all the time. I just almost never get to do it [this way], so it’s like that.
But I do recall crying, not sobbing, but having tears in my eyes behind the camera twice in my life because of the acting, and both times were at the beginning of my career. The first was actually the first film Olivier directed, Disorder, it’s one character with one line in a graveyard [laughs], so I guess in some ways I’ve always been sensitive to the actors.
Filmmaker: Did you lay an extensive groundwork for Yorick to then follow?
Lenoir: Not at all. I’m going to go back to Carlos because it was the same director, the same two DPs shooting roughly half the film each. Yorick was the one that had launched Carlos, so he chose the film stock and the one diffusion filter we would use or not. Roughly, that was it. I went to spend one day on his set when he was finishing his time. I looked at the way he was putting the light and, like every time I’d walk onto a college film set, I had no idea what he was doing. I loved what I was seeing on the video tap, but how he was achieving that? I didn’t get it. I hardly looked at the dailies. There were probably too many dailies already, probably several hours, so I didn’t look, and Olivier didn’t tell me anything. We had already worked together many times at that point. The result is that no one can tell who shot what. It was exactly the same with Wasp Network, I picked the camera because I launched the project this time and told him we were going to overexpose it one stop. I don’t know if he did, but I shared that with him. We decided we would not use filters, but that he might use them when he shot Penélope. I don’t know what he put and what he didn’t put. And I don’t know if he watched dailies—maybe he did, but I don’t know. In the end it will be the same. Watching the film I can remember what I shot, because it’s fresh, but maybe I’ll watch the film ten years from now and not even know. When editing Carlos, Olivier shared with me that he couldn’t tell who had shot what. He had to find out who was behind the camera that day to figure out who shot what scene.
So, what’s the lesson? It’s not that Yorick and I are completely interchangeable clones of each other. It is, in my opinion, that the movie has its own schedule, script, actors and locations. If we shot Wasp Network in North Korea it would not look the same at all. It’s why the half of Wasp Network I shot does not look like my last feature. And it doesn’t look like Carlos despite being the same director, the same DPs and one common actor.
Filmmaker: Not even a conversation about how you’d shoot the dialogue? There seems to be a consistent language there.
Lenoir: No. There are so many scenes that are several pages of dialogues between two characters at a table and in the same location. Olivier does something that he likes to do where he crosses the line in the middle of a scene to change the background, to keep the images more interesting. I’m not excited by that myself—in dialogue, I prefer, as they call it in the states, “walk and talk.” But Olivier doesn’t like that, so no walk and talk. Personally, I find it more lively. Yes, it is a cliche of American TV, but for good reason I would say.
Filmmaker: Is there any kind of project you can imagine where you might approach this transition more rigidly?
Lenoir: At the Screenwriting Master Class at New York Film Festival, Olivier talked about what he learned between his first film and his last. He has become more eager and apt to improvise, less so to try to control everything all the time.
Filmmaker: I just want to clarify, it’s to your understanding that the VENICE has more depth in the highlights than the Alexa?
Lenoir: I would say that the Alexa, by the choice they made in the internal software, offers a more natural overexposure—what they call, from the film days, a nice shoulder. The Sony VENICE doesn’t have that pleasant way of transitioning from some information to pure white. I’m not talking about clipping yet. But I would say it has more dynamic range, meaning it has more information before going white.
[A few hours afterwards, I talked with Wasp Network’s co-cinematographer Yorick Le Saux]
Filmmaker: Denis says you’re more fond of the Arri Alexa than the Sony VENICE.
Yorick Le Saux: Denis was the one who chose the VENICE. But for budget reasons we didn’t shoot 6K, we shot 4K. I think the VENICE is better when you shoot 6K, and I would have preferred an Alexa, but whatever, we shot it.
Filmmaker: How did the VENICE handle these brighter highlights?
Le Saux: Denis says the VENICE contains more information and range in the highlights, but I’m not sure that’s true. I wasn’t there for prep and so wasn’t able to run tests with it beside the Alexa. But I think that the VENICE has less of that range when it captures in 4K.
Filmmaker: Did you overexpose a stop as Denis did?
Le Saux: I had never used the VENICE before, so I was becoming more accustomed to it over those five weeks. I didn’t stick to it like a rule, but I maintained the idea that we’d enjoy the hot highlights and the burning sun, things like that.
Filmmaker: What do you think about your and Denis’ decision to not be too rigid about the transition?
Le Saux: I don’t know why, but maybe viewers become somehow more invested in the scene because of those variations. Did you watch the movie at the New York Film Festival?
Filmmaker: I did, the new cut.
Le Saux: What did you think? Do you think it’s better?
Filmmaker: I think the material is approached in a very interesting and odd way, but I’ve only seen the new cut. I have nothing to compare it to. Have you seen it?
Le Saux: I’ve only seen the footage separately. I haven’t seen it altogether in the film.
Filmmaker: How exactly did you and Denis divide up shooting the film?
Le Saux: It was more for schedule than for technical or conceptual reasons. He did the first five weeks. The only rule we followed was that Penélope would only be shot by one DP. We thought that would be better for her.
Filmmaker: Denis wasn’t sure if you used any filtration. Did you?
Le Saux: I didn’t use any filtration.
Filmmaker: What else do you think having two different DPs lent to the film?
Le Saux: I think it would have been much better if there were just one DP. But this movie was a lot. There was a lot to shoot everyday, there were a lot of problems, and I don’t think I could have managed the whole thing.
Filmmaker: Do you find yourself working more to the actors as you get later into your career?
Le Saux: No. For me, the priority was Olivier. There’s a lot going on in this film. There’s action, there’s drama, a lot for Olivier to juggle, and my role was not to take long with the lights, to give him as much room as he could to do what he needed. But, of course, I love the actors. I need to be there for the scene. I do not care about the light. I need to find my way into the movie, my way into shooting the movie, which should work for the actors, the scene, and the director—not in favor of the photography.